By Sharan Saikumar May. 30, 2016
A man who spent seven years in Tihar Jail on a narcotics charge tells us about his first day in the system.
Within 24 hours of my arrest, I was to be presented to the sessions judge at Patiala House for my judicial remand. I arrived at Patiala House at 2 pm. As I got off the van, I saw Hema. She was standing at the edge of the car park, looking frantically around the busy courthouse as if unsure where I’d emerge from. The shock of seeing her familiar face in a sea of black-coated lawyers and khakee-clad policemen was so intense that it took me a while to make sense of her presence.
She’d obviously been waiting a while. Her face was flushed under the blaze of the direct winter sun; a small pile of crushed cigarettes was scattered around her feet. Acknowledging the solemnity of the occasion, she was wearing respectable clothes – jeans and a buttoned-up cotton shirt. I vaguely recognised the man standing with her.
As soon as she saw me, she rushed toward me. The guard who was holding my hand as we navigated the crowd, stopped her from touching me. Her eyes were shining and her usually aggressive face was soft with worry. Relax, I wanted to tell her, it’s going to be okay.
I knew she wasn’t worried about the arrest as much as my turkey. The last sniff I’d had was the day before, just before the cops ransacked our house. That was 24 hours ago. Now, funky-smelling sweat soaked my shirt and my tongue was swollen to twice its size. I didn’t dare hope that she was carrying something for me.
We walked together quietly as as she introduced me to the lawyer she had hired, a guy called Sujit Singh. Sujit started firing me with all kinds of questions: Have you said anything? Have you signed anything? But I couldn’t speak. The short walk and flight of stairs had sapped my already feeble body. I nodded. I’d given a full confession.
Like every other educated Indian, I had no faith in the legal system. This whole thing was a farce. Justice was done based on favours, relationships, and money.
We were now passing a maze of tiny law offices, each no bigger than a closet; all of them humming with activity and hot tea. Lawyers stood at the tea stalls behind blackened woks bubbling with frying oil, eating fried bread pakodas, chattering vigorously. My chest hurt.
I asked my guard to stop, but he was too busy parting the crowds with an officious hand. Then my wife yelled the same thing, only in a much louder, Hema kind of voice. The startled guard looked at her, but didn’t stop walking until we reached the entrance of a small white building. The benches on either side were full of undertrials being similarly held by their guards.
One guy in cuffs had three armoured guards watching him. Later, during one of my frequent visits to Patiala House, I would learn that the armoured guards were reserved for convicts facing trial under the the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (prevention) Act. The TADA court was right next to the one I was heading to – the NDPS court. Drug smugglers, it seemed, were not far off from terrorists in the eyes of the law.
I leaned against the green painted walls and caught my breath. Singh was filling out paperwork on a briefcase propped over a raised knee. He kept talking about retraction of the confession, about B Class and C Class, but I couldn’t follow. All I could think about was that at the end of this visit, I was going to Tihar, while everyone else would carry on with business as usual. I couldn’t grasp the unreality of it all. The guards. The cuffs. Lawyers eating fried bread washed down with Coca-Cola. All I wanted to do was keep sitting.
Singh left to get the papers franked and notarised. Hema, my faithful guard, and I waited outside for my case to be called. Hema’s eyes were scanning my face. I knew what was going through her head. How the hell was I managing? With a 20-year-old heroin habit, how had I spent the last 24 hours? And what the fuck would happen to me now? Her eye gestures prompted me to look down at her palm. Inside her fist, I could see a small piece of chewing gum barely covering the tiny white rock of heroin within its pink folds. I shook my head, signalling toward the guard.
By the time Singh came back, our case was called. Inside, the judges’ chambers were nothing like I’d expected. It was a small white room with ten plastic chairs lined at one end and an elevated desk on the other. The only thing it had in common with the courtrooms of my imagination were high ceilings and impossibly long suspended ceiling fans whirring noisily, trying to dissipate the claustrophobia of shut windows.
Hema took one of the chairs as Singh and I went forward to stand in front of the judge. I held on to the witness box for support, wondering if the entire courthouse could hear me wheezing. The judge arrived. She was a short, dark woman wearing a tiny black bindi, her frizzy hair held back with a clip. I scanned her face, her body language, and even her sari for signs of leniency, without having the faintest idea of what “leniency” even looked like, but I got nothing. The only obvious sign was the impatience written all over her face.
As soon as she sat, both the lawyers went at her. Singh immediately filed a motion for a retraction and the NDPS lawyer, a dark Tamilian man with a head full of salt-and-pepper hair — Mr Srinivasan — opposed it. I stood watching as the two of them decided my future with disinterest. Like every other educated Indian, I had no faith in the legal system. This whole thing was a farce. Justice was done based on favours, relationships, and money.
It was only when the lawyers stopped squabbling that the judge snapped to attention and called for a retraction of the confession. I was taken aback. Singh seemed to have done his job – he’d filed a motion stating that the confession was taken under duress by the NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau) and not the police.
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Srinivasan made feeble attempts at fighting the retraction, but the judge didn’t leave much room for argument. She even gave us the B Class that Singh had been hankering after. It was permission for a separate holding area inside Tihar for undertrials from the more wholesome sections of society – those with education degrees and income tax certificates. I didn’t know it then, but B Class would be the difference between life and death in Tihar.
Before I knew it, we were being ushered out in a daze. Where was the demand for paperwork in triplicate? Where were the infamous delays? In ten minutes the judge had confirmed the NDPS status of my case, signed the retraction and the B Class papers, and called the next case. She still hadn’t looked at me.
Hema was joyous. I could see it on her face; there was an irrational surge of hope. Hema immediately asked him about bail, Singh looked at her with surprise. There is no bail under NDPS, he told her with an expression that said – you’ve been running drugs for 20 fucking years, you should know that.
Our business was done. The guard was leading me back to the van. This time he walked slowly though his grip on my hand was tighter, as if he knew that this was the stage at which the desire to flee was the strongest in his wards. Hema reached for my other hand, but he stopped her and motioned her to walk behind us.
Up ahead, I could see the van. Inside it there were two men, their heads and faces clearly visible through the half-cage design. At the steps of the van, a man and woman stood awkwardly with their guard. They were looking at each other with suppressed longing of physical contact, that skin-to-skin touch which is the only way we knew how to say goodbye. The woman was crying softy, as the man looked helplessly around him and then eventually escaped into the van.
Hema and I took their place. We looked at each other, not knowing what to say. Suddenly, Hema lunged and gripped me by the face. Before the flustered guard could say anything she kissed me on the mouth. I kissed her back, deeply and desperately. The guard yanked me back towards the entrance of the van but the deed was done.
The gum-wrapped heroin was in my mouth.
Sketch: Satyawan Pawar
As told to Sharan Saikumar